50 Years Later, Tornado Still Haunts Author

Apr 16, 2017

Mike Doyle wasn't in Belvidere on April 21, 1967. The Rockford native was a freshman at UW-Whitewater when an F4 tornado ripped through Boone County.

But Doyle's been living with that twister for years.

His book, The Belvidere Tornado, was first published in 2008. It tells the stories of people who survived the storm, and the 24 who didn't.

When Doyle finished the manuscript, he got up from his desk and walked into the living room.

"I told my wife the book was done and I just started to weep," he says. "I thought I had done the best job I could in telling these stories, and by doing that they affected me personally."

A new edition, published by The History Press, coincides with the storm's 50th anniversary and includes new information.

This book is the first in our new, monthly series of Read With Me author interviews.

Few physical reminders of the tornado remain except dozens of interviews and photos archived in the Boone County Historical Museum, materials Doyle used to research this book. The most visible memorial is a tornado-shaped sculpture in front of Belvidere High School.

"Seventeen children died that day," Doyle says. "Most of them were young children."

Doyle says the high school was a staging area for buses who picked up students throughout the area. He describes the routing system in an interview with WNIJ.

"The buses picked up students from not only the elementary schools but two private schools -- St. James and Immanuel Lutheran -- and the Junior High School," he says. "And they were taken then to Belvidere High School."

The tornado arrived at 3:40 p.m., just as students left the building and the partially filled buses were waiting.

WGN-TV's Tom Skilling (left) with monument designer Jeff Spradling at Belvidere High School.
Credit Susan Moran

"Sixteen buses were damaged or destroyed or flown into the air," Doyle says. "One was pushed all the way back to a far fence which is where the high school stadium is now."

In Chapter 1, Doyle tells the story of meteorologist Steve Steinke -- then an NIU student -- who went looking for his father Larry, a bus driver, shortly after the storm.

"He's walking to the school to find his father's bus," Doyle says. "He sees kids on the roof and he's thinking 'What are these kids doing on the roof?' What he didn't know was the students were blown up there and one student died. They found his body up there."

Steinke later found his father -- who survived, along with his busload of kids -- after he saw the threatening sky and pulled to the roadside. One of Larry Steinke's passengers was Kathleen Boyd, a first-grader at Washington School:

"Fortunately, I was on one of the buses that had to make a drop-off of
children at Greenview Estates before we went to the high school,” she
said. “The bus driver, Larry Steinke, drove back into town on Newburg
Road, down Locust to Pleasant and then to the junior high to head up
Pearl Street to go to the high school. When we turned the corner onto
Pearl, Larry stopped the bus and told us all to get under the seats. I looked
up the street toward Pacemaker, and there was the most horrible thing. I
can remember it as vivid today as I did that day. It is not something you
easily forget.”
After the tornado passed, the driver continued the bus journey toward
the high school, “turning from street to street to avoid downed power lines,”
Boyd said. “My dad got me off the bus at Fifth Street somewhere. How he
found the bus is beyond me.”

At the high school, sophomore Leslie Wright sat in a station wagon with two friends on Circle Drive waiting for another friend, Carla. Suddenly, Judith Ford jumped into the back seat. Ford would be crowned Miss America two years later:

“I don’t recall why she was there,” Leslie said, wondering
if she had jumped in to take shelter from the sudden downpour.
Soon enough, they spotted Carla, struggling with two armfuls of books,
her clarinet case and gym clothes. As they watched her walk to the car, the
sky turned strangely dark and the gusting winds and driving rain pushed
and pulled at her. Carla turned back and disappeared into the building,
Leslie said.
Then the storm hit. The sound of hail hitting the roof and hood was
deafening, Leslie recalled. As the car began to rock and sway, Leslie
wondered if it was going to flip over. “I remember yelling the obvious
out loud: ‘Put your heads down!’ Head pressed into my lap with my arms
wrapped tightly around, I had no idea what was happening. A bad storm
for sure.”
When the pressure blew out the side windows, the station wagon rocked
more ferociously. Then, calm.
“Unsure of what had just happened, we got out of the car and made our
way to the school,” Leslie said. “I vaguely remember looking out toward the
grass fields to the east and seeing yellow buses scattered. And at the entrance,
I recalled twisted aluminum door frames.”

The Belvidere tornado remains the deadliest in the WNIJ area. Since this storm, powerful tornadoes hit Utica in 2004, Fairdale in 2015 and Ottawa/Naplate in February. But in each case, improved storm prediction meant far fewer deaths. The eight people who died in Utica were in the basement of the Milestone Tavern, a century-old building that collapsed.

Mike Doyle in the WNIJ studios.
Credit Carl Nelson

Doyle says whoever writes about these storms should focus on the human impact. "When I interviewed somebody or someone sent me a transcript or a journal, I just told their story," he says. "I'm not trying to put my personal opinion into it. I'm just the conduit." 

And sometimes, he says, you have to wait.

"One of the most compelling stories that's in the new edition came from a mother who lost her son. And it took her fifty years to tell her story."

This April 21, community members will gather at the Belvidere High School Performing Arts Center for a memorial ceremony. Doyle says he'll be there.

Our "Read With Me" series continues May 15 with God on Mayhem Street, Kristin Oakley's latest novel. We invite you to read that book before the interview airs.

And if you're talking about any of our RWM books or authors on social media, please use #WNIJReadWithME